22 August 2016

When Graffiti Turns Generic

Once upon a time, you would discover the work of an artist through a “real life” platform like a museum or gallery, and utilise the internet as a secondary tool to find out more about their work. Increasingly, we find the complete opposite happening as lurking through the depths of the oceanic Internet is how we stumble across new art. It’s only if you’re lucky or if you happen to be in the general vicinity that you then get the chance to witness your URL find... IRL.

As with most art, the level of understanding depends on who’s looking at it and interventions like those of street artist Mathieu Tremblin are arguably one of the most paradoxical forms of art in this sense. In response to an imbalance brewing between the analogue and digital reception of the graffiti scene, Strasbourg-based Tremblin re-writes existing graffiti tags in a quintessentially digital typeface, mimicking online tag clouds.

The real life experience of physically standing before projects like those of Tremblin and witnessing them in the flesh is becoming increasingly rare as photo series and art projects “go viral” and the real life dialogues get unintentionally hushed. In reception of his series Tag Clouds, the ownership-obsessed cynics go head-to-head with the anti-graffiti order-obsessed enthusiasts as the artist draws poker-straight parallels between cities and the Internet. He explains that name writing is about appropriation and interaction; from the appropriation of tools, aesthetics, space and language while interaction occurs between architecture, other writers, passersby, the police and cleaning services.

Generally, we lack awareness as to how open to appropriation our public spaces really are, both online and off, and like many post-internet artists, this is what Tremblin wants to focus on. Between dressing up as a city worker to go unnoticed and a visit to Düsseldorf, where civilians called the police on his every move – he spoke to Dazed about how his conversational critique reduces the graffiti hall of fame to pure, concentrated ego in all its might.

Why did you want to change the existing tags?
I wanted to raise awareness on a form of name writing graffiti that I found interesting and that people actually hate.

Is the question of morality raised by eliminating work that might hold meaning to its creator?
Does the city cleaning services ask themselves about morality when they erase all the works of graffiti writers in the city, every day? Does a graffiti writer covering a hall of fame with a big chrome piece ask himself about morality when he plays the graffiti game? I tried to stick to graffiti writing ethic and push it forward, challenging its understanding beyond the comfort zone of traditional name-writing rules. It seems to me that name writing is more about an anarchic self-expression than a conservative one, and that the ephemeral aspect is part of the deal when you intervene in urban space.

Did the sense of entitlement come from a place of seeing the tags as vandalism or was it something else that brought on this approach?
I don’t see tags as vandalism. Vandalism is a judgment related to the concept of ownership, which depends on the cultural perspective from which you speak. Tagging is the most interesting part of name writing because on one side, it’s a contemporary aesthetic of calligraphy and on the other side, it totally challenges your perception of architecture and the way you can walk through the city in everyday life.

Some see tags as little more than marking territory and when they’re clearly spelled out in this way, it highlights that there can be little sense to them. Was this your intention?
Urban calligraphy brings humanity together with this cryptic aspect – a code that people have to decipher if they want to access to an alternative reading of urban space. It seems quite complex to understand for a lot of people, but as a comparison nowadays, everybody is speaking about the treasure hunt of “Pokémon Go!” and how it’s permitting the players to go beyond the functional path drawn by urban planners and introduce a bit of dérive in their everyday life. In name writing, the practice of writing but also of reading is the tool; you don’t need a smartphone to experience an adventurous journey in the city. Just follow the tags.

Have you had a response from any of the taggers whose work you’ve turned into your own?
I did get in touch with some of the writers when I could reach them, or at least I got in touch with the local graffiti scene to gauge how my gesture would be received. I continued anonymously and illegally while some writers interacted with the piece, filling the blanks but always respecting the names of other writers by not covering them. Until, at one point, a writer came and did over the hall of fame with a bigger piece.

Do you see your reinventions of these tags as graffiti in itself or do you categorise it in a different way?
From my perspective, it has no visual qualities because it borrows a computer-based default aesthetic; it’s just an analog tag cloud. Graffiti is basically putting an inscription on the wall. It cannot be categorised completely because, on one hand, it adheres to functional types of design present in the city, on the other hand, it still displays graffiti names.

Is your work exempt from the government painting over it due to its difference or is it equally at risk of being removed?
So, I got arrested in Eindhoven and had to pay a fee for doing “graffiti” because the city had a zero tolerance policy about any type of intervention in urban space. In France, it’s not totally ruled by private property so when you do an intervention dressed like a city worker, most of the people come and talk to you instead of calling the police. That’s a technique that makes you somehow legit (even if what you are doing remains illegal) and a lot of graffiti writers or artists doing urban intervention are using it.

Can you explain the links you form between the physical tag as a statement and the virtual tag in its compartmentalization of digital information?
Tags in the city are drawing graffiti writers’ personal paths over a city map; where tags on the internet permit crossover surfing in databases of contents, articles, texts, and images. This intervention is pointing to this parallel between IRL and URL reception that has started to merge since people started to share their direct experience online with their smartphones – precisely as they were experiencing it.

Read the interview on Dazed here.